Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Ecological Morality and Non-Moral Sentiments

Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside

Environmental Ethics: Summer, 1996, v. 18
Reprinted: Land, Value, Community,
Ouderkirk and Hill, SUNY Press, 2002


An earlier version of this paper was presented at a Symposium of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association, San Francisco, CA, March 29, 1991. The first two sections of the paper have greatly benefited from conversations with Anton Struchkov of the Institute for the History of Science and Technology, of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Moscow.


A complete environmental ethic must include a theory of motivation, to assure that the demands of that ethic are within the capacity of human beings. J. Baird Callicott has argued that these requisite sentiments may be found in the Moral psychology of David Hume, enriched by the insights of Charles Darwin. I reply that, on the contrary, Humean moral sentiments are more likely to incline one to anthropocentrism, rather than to Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic, which is defended by Callicott. Furthermore, this mismatch becomes more evident as Callicott attempts to enlist Humean moral sentiments in support of the Leopoldian "land community." The disanalogies between human and natural communities, I argue, are too great to permit this application. The motivation we need to meet our duties as "citizens of the land community," must be of a non-moral kind. I suggest that the necessary sentiments may be found in a genetically based, "affirmation of nature," that has evolved out of our natural history as a species, shaped by the very forces and contexts that are now put in peril by our technology.



Arcturian zoologists visiting this planet could make no sense of our morality and art until they reconstructed our genetic history -- nor can we.

Edward O. Wilson1


Radical environmentalists have often characterized homo sapiens as a cancerous mutation, heedlessly devouring the planetary body that nurtured and sustains it, and thus veering toward its own destruction and that of its ecosystemic host.

If this bleak scenario is to be reversed, a key ingredient of our collective rescue must be a mix of scientifically informed insight into the consequences of our assaults upon the planet, a clear view of our duties to our species, the ecosystem and the future, and finally the motivation to do what that duty demands of us. Of these, the third, motivation, and the sentiments which support it, has arguably received the least attention.

In his distinguished career, J. Baird Callicott has enriched Aldo Leopold's visionary "Land Ethic" with the insights of critical and normative ethics, thus bringing Leopold's vision into the arena of philosophical debate and scholarship. To his credit, Callicott has recognized the essential role of moral psychology to a cogent environmental ethic.

While I share Callicott's conviction that an environmental ethic cannot stand without a theory of sentiments, I dispute his suggestion that David Hume's theory of moral sentiments will adequately function in this role.2 On the contrary, I will contend, humean moral sentiments tend toward the opposite result of reinforcing anthropocentrism and alienating humans from nature. If moral sentiments are to aid the ecological moralist, they must do so in a secondary way, by binding human communities and motivating them to appropriate action in the defense of their natural contexts and heritage. But for a primary motivational support of environmental ethic, we must look to the non-moral sentiments. This paper closes with a suggestion as to where we might find those requisite non-moral sentiments.



In several of his excellent publications, Baird Callicott has attempted to show that Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic "actually has a legitimate ancestry in the Western philosophical canon. . . traceable through [Charles] Darwin [in the Descent of Man], to the Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth century," notably the moral philosophy of Adam Smith and David Hume.3  He thus outlines "The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic," in his essay of that title:

Its conceptual elements are a Copernican cosmology, a Darwinian protosociobiological natural history of ethics, Darwinian ties of kinship among all forms of life on earth, and an Eltonian model of the structure of biocenoses all overlaid on a Humean-Smithian moral psychology. Its logic is that natural selection has endowed human beings with an affective moral response to perceived bonds of kinship and community membership and identity; that today the natural environment, the land, is represented as a community, the biotic community...4

If we are to assess this claim, a review of some elements of Hume's moral philosophy will be in order. First, Hume posits that moral judgment is based, not on reason, but on "some internal sense or feeling which nature has made universal in the whole species." In this crucial assertion, we find that to Hume, morality is, strangely, both subjective ("internal") and "universal," for these "moral sentiments" issue from "the original fabric and formation of the human mind, which is naturally adapted to receive them."5   Note here the explicit reference to the "natural" foundations and adaptations of the human mind and morality. We'll have much to say about this later.

"Morality," writes Hume, "is determined by sentiment. It defines virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation; and vice the contrary."6  Prominent among the moral sentiments mentioned by Hume are generosity, love, friendship, esteem, compassion, gratitude, guilt, shame, contempt, hatred. Primary among these are the sentiments of benevolence and sympathy -- in fact, the latter might better be regarded as the capacity necessary for the generation of the sentiments. Note how all these sentiments are personal -- that is, either reflecting or referring to qualities of persons.

So, if I understand him correctly, Callicott is attempting to demonstrate that Humean moral sentiments, emerged from "the original fabric and formation of the human mind" -- as Hume himself put it in words that Charles Darwin could and apparently did embrace. Such sentiments, argues Callicott, can extend out from the individual to attach to his immediate family and friends, then to the society beyond, and finally may affirm the life community itself and thus support a normative environmental ethic.

I just don't think this will work, since (a) the application of "moral sentiments" ends with our "moral community," which (b) can be no more than a community of persons, or at most, of sentient beings, due to the profound disanalogies between such "moral communities" and Leopold's "natural community" of ecosystems. All this requires argument. We begin with "moral sentiments."

Just what are "Moral Sentiments" anyway? Let's take this one word at a time. First, "moral." I will interpret this crucial term in a manner which I believe to be fairly standard among contemporary moral philosophers. The adjective "moral" must have, lurking at least somewhere in its context of application, some deliberative agent or community of agents -- which is to say, a "person" (though not necessarily a human). "Moral" implies responsibility, accountability, praise, and blame. In essence, a moral judgment is a judgment which reflects upon the worth of a person. Persons of moral worth are called "virtuous," persons of little worth are called "wicked." Acts that reflect well on persons are "right," and their opposites are "wrong." In a planet without persons, however teeming with sentient but non-deliberative and non-reflective life, there will be "goods and bads," but no morality -- no right and wrong, no justice, no duties, no rights. Put bluntly, if the latest data of evolution is to be believed, morality emerged upon the earth within the past million years -- possibly within the past few ten-thousand years.

Moral sentiment, then, is simply an emotional and evaluative attitude toward a person, persons, or their institutions. Positive and negative moral sentiments toward oneself include, respectively, self-esteem and guilt or shame. Towards others, these sentiments are respectively called admiration and indignation or contempt. Of particular interest to Hume, and thus to Callicott, are the moral sentiments of sympathy and benevolence.

We morally praise and blame people with regard to their treatment of other persons. The traditional virtues -- courage, charity, benevolence, trust, fidelity, testify to the command of our will and signify our recognition of the worth of other persons. The deadly sins -- pride, lust, avarice, gluttony, sloth, envy, greed -- issue from our depersonalization of our brethren, and stigmatize the willful crippling of our moral potential.

The worth of persons -- of oneself and of those with whom we deal -- is the paradigm context of moral evaluation. The invasion of personal interest and the destruction of personal property is the paradigm of immorality. By extension, the infliction of pain upon defenseless, sentient non-personal beings, is a penumbral immorality.

With this elucidation, I submit that the problem of basing a normative environmental ethic on moral sentiments becomes clear. Moral sentiments seem to require persons in the equation. But what if persons are not apparent in the objects of our concern? And so we ask: Why does the clear-cutting of a primeval forest, the damming of a wild river, or the extinction of a species, violate a normative environmental ethic? If these are moral wrongs, then one must presumably show that the agents responsible have done something that reflects poorly upon them as persons -- due, perhaps, to their wrongful treatment of persons. Yet all this environmental destruction might be done in behalf of persons. The rain forest cut in behalf of the poor farmers, dams built to provide cheap and abundant power, etc.

To state that the willful destruction of nature is morally wrong, presupposes an underlying theory of value which supports principles, the violation of which reflects unfavorably upon the worth of the agent responsible for this destruction. As the precondition for moral evaluation, such a theory must be a theory of non-moral value, otherwise the theory will be circular.7  Thus, if this theory is based upon sentiments, then these must be non-moral sentiments.

At this point, two theoretical roads diverge: Along one, we return to a familiar anthropocentrism by identifying that "non-moral value" as pleasure/pain, or human potential and welfare, or whatever "good-for-people" -- choose your theory. Along the other road, we might seek intrinsic values in nature -- a vast and fascinating realm of inquiry. The second road, I believe, is far more promising for environmental ethics, and Callicott has often explored it in promising and suggestive ways.

Unfortunately for the argument offered here by Callicott, it appears that Hume had the first road in mind. As Callicott correctly points out, Hume's "moral sentiments" have their origin in interpersonal relationships. These sentiments are evoked by our recognition of the personhood or sentience in others. But as personhood is the source of these moral sentiments, so too is it its limit. Accordingly, the Humean sentiment of benevolence is not directed toward insentient nature, much less toward abstractions such as species or ecosystems.8   Nor can Humean sympathy connect with objects in or conditions of impersonal nature. Hume could not have been more explicit about this than when he wrote: "Inanimate objects ... can never be the object of love or hatred, nor are [they] consequently susceptible of merit or iniquity."9   Thus the humean moralist will favor the logger and his dependant family over the old-growth forest, the abalone fishermen over the sea otters, the Lake Powell water-skiers over the Glen Canyon wrens. I submit that the uses to which Callicott is putting "moral sentiments" would astonish David Hume.

Humean moral sentiment is a poor theoretical stream in which to fish for a land ethic.



Like Callicott and many other eco-philosophers, I find Leopold's "natural community" metaphor to be attractive, and so I have often used it. Occasionally, some of my colleagues have warned me not to be beguiled by this metaphor. Reading Callicott, I begin to see what they had in mind.

No one can read Leopold without recognizing immediately and vividly the aptness of the community metaphor. As in human societies, the individual "members" survive and flourish only as they interact and respond, share and cooperate (even in the "cooperative" act of predation), and thus sustain the "community" -- a whole which is more than the sum of its individual parts, in fact which is best conceived, not in terms of its component parts, but in terms of its internal relations and processes.10

So much for the compelling analogies. But one fundamental disanalogy remains: the human community alone is characterized by reciprocity among moral agents. Thus rights, duties, justice and responsibility belong exclusively to the axiological vocabulary of human communities. These terms are meaningless in the natural community, unless that community is touched by the human (or better, the personal). If the reach of moral sentiment stops at the barrier of personhood or, at most, of sentience, does the extent of "moral community" likewise end with those beings who can reciprocate the bonds of moral consideration -- or, at least, have the bare neural equipment to care how they are treated?

Callicott thinks not, and for reasons now familiar to us. In "Intrinsic Value, Quantum Theory and Environmental Ethics," he writes:

Hume suggests that the values you project onto objects are not arbitrary, but arise spontaneously in you because of the "constitution of your nature." ... Leopold masterfully played upon our open social and moral sentiments by representing plants and animals, soils and waters as "fellow members" of our maximally expanded "biotic community." Hence, to those who are ecologically well-informed, nonhuman natural entities are inherently valuable -- as putative members of one extended family or society. And nature as a whole is inherently valuable -- as the one great family or society to which we belong as members or citizens.11

Here Callicott boldly goes where few moral philosophers have gone before, carrying his community metaphor to the far end of the field.

But what is Callicott to say to the critic who replies, "it is just the differences between human and natural 'communities' that causes me to reject this extension. Extend out from human communities, and you leave the domain of cognition and reciprocation among equals, to that of mere sentience, and then, into the domain of insentience and non-life. As you do, you shed the stringency of your moral imperatives. Thus, as my neighbor cares how I treat him and his property, so then must I respect his concerns, as I demand that he respect mine. To assure this mutual respect and restraint, we form communities regulated by laws. But that redwood and that river don't care in the least how I treat them -- so why should I? Granted, if I despoil the tree and the river, and thus violate the 'integrity, stability and beauty' of the so-called ecological 'community' of which they, and I, are a part, then this will impoverish my world, and that of my neighbors and posterity. So I'll keep on paying my Sierra Club dues, and I agree to march on Washington. But I'll do all this for my sake, and that of my neighbors and posterity -- not for the 'sake' of the tree and river which, strictly speaking, have no 'sake.'"12

Callicott correctly points out that it is scientific knowledge that makes us "ecologically well-informed" by teaching us that the ecosystem is a figurative "community" in the sense of a cooperative scheme of interacting parts, and of information, energy and nutrient distribution. But the social sciences also point out significant dissimilarities between ecosystems and human communities of persons, with their complex systems of moral controls -- e.g., reciprocating rights and duties, procedural and distributive justice, sanctions, moral sentiments, etc. To be fully "well-informed" is to be aware both of the similarities and the differences of these two "communities."

But this attempt to extend, by analogy, our loyalty to our human community over to the natural, is based on the pre-supposition that our human community deserves our prima facie loyalty (surely one of the most fundamental assumptions of political philosophy). Notice how Callicott uses this presumptive "community loyalty" to derive, by extension, a (deontological) ought from the ecological is, as he asks why we should, in Leopold's indelible words, 'preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.' Callicott replies: "Because (1) we all generally have a positive attitude toward the community or society to which we belong; and (2) science has now discovered that the natural environment is a community or society to which we belong, no less than to the human global village."13

But should we "have a positive attitude..."? Unfortunately for Callicott's argument, a "positive attitude" is a notoriously poor "is" from which to imply an "ought." For instance, it makes perfectly good sense to say that "P has a positive attitude toward his society," and then say that "P's society is unjust" (or otherwise "bad"). Still worse, it is commonplace to do so. Consider, for example, Eichmann's attitude toward the Nazi society. Fundamental to our political traditions is the conviction that our political institutions must measure up morally. If they do not, we strive to reform them and, failing that, we are entitled to abolish them. "Community" is not a self-authenticating good.

How, then, do we reply to those who say that "Mother Nature is a bitch," and her so-called "community" deserves to be wiped out and supplanted by the sort of artificial environments beloved by James Watt (and others that we will meet shortly)? One might reply that if we attempt to obliterate nature, nature will strike back and obliterate us instead. But even if one accepts this retort (as I do), if that is all one has to say in behalf of the land ethic, that ethic reduces to "enlightened anthropocentrism." Surely Callicott and Leopold want more from their land ethic than this. I know that I do.

Clearly, what we need is some indication that each of us is, in Leopold's eloquent words, a "plain member and citizen" of the land community, notwithstanding the fact that our "fellow citizens" in this community are unreflective and mute, and in most cases, insentient. The scientific evidence that we stand in fundamental interdependence with "the life community" of nature is, I submit, conclusive. But this conclusion merely reminds us that, in our dealings with nature, we should be prudent at best -- that we should "obey" the "laws of ecology" for our own good. "Enlightened Anthropocentrism" again.

This is not an environmental ethic that Leopold or Callicott can accept, nor shall I. Fear and apprehension of nature, and of its retaliation upon us for our poor management, are precisely the opposite sentiments sought by the eco-moralists. What they celebrate are an ethic founded upon the gentler sentiments of affirmation, wonder, and of love. Are such sentiments toward nature possible? I believe that they are not only possible, they may be essential to a viable environmental ethic, which is to say, to our continued membership in the natural "community."

Interestingly, I suspect that Hume, Darwin and Callicott have each made significant contributions toward the articulation of an empirical and cognitivistic theory of eco-morality, based upon natural (sans "moral") sentiments. Briefly, the theory is this: We are genetically "programmed" to respond to nature with the sentiments of affirmation, wonder and love, due to the fact that nature supplied the environment which selected our genes, and thus shaped our neurological and cognitive equipment. However intuitively attractive the theory may appear, it rests upon some poorly validated, conjectures about the origin and status of certain fundamental responses to nature. Yet, if supported by subsequent empirical investigation, this just might be the "theory of sentiments" sought by Callicott to "support a normative environmental ethic." Concerned that I just might have been all-too successful in my critique of Callicott's worthy search for "moral sentiments" in defense of the land ethic, I turn now to the task of suggesting an alternative theory of sentiments.



In a celebrated and oft-quoted letter, Wallace Stegner writes:

Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams... So that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong to it.14

Just what will we have lost? Nothing, replies Martin Krieger, in his notorious paper, "What's Wrong With Plastic Trees?" After all, we are "plastic people" -- that is, infinitely malleable. We can adopt to anything, and like it:

My guess is that there is very little wrong with [plastic trees]. Much more can be done with plastic trees and the like to give most people the feeling that they are experiencing nature. We will have to realize that the way in which we experience nature is conditioned by our society...15

On the contrary, writes Botanist Hugh Iltis, "like the need for love, the need for nature, the need for its diversity and beauty, has a genetic basis." He continues:

... the best environment is one in which the human animal can have maximum contact with the type of natural environment in which it evolved and for which it is genetically programmed without sacrificing the major advantages of civilization... Every basic adaptation of the human body, be it the ear, the eye, the brain, yes, even our psyche, demands for proper functioning access to an environment similar, at least, to the one in which these structures evolved through natural selection over the past 100 million years.16

E. O. Wilson elaborates:

The brain evolved into its present form over a period of about two million years, from the time of homo habilis to the late stone age of homo sapiens, during which people existed in hunter-gatherer bands in intimate contact with the natural environment. Snakes mattered. The smell of water, the hum of a bee, the directional bend of a plant stalk mattered. The naturalist's trance was adaptive: the glimpse of one small animal hidden in the grass could make the difference between eating and going hungry in the evening. And a sweet sense of horror, the shivery fascination with monsters and creeping forms that so delights us today even in the sterile hearts of the cities, could see you through to the next morning... Although the evidence is far from all in, the brain appears to have kept its old capacities, its channeled quickness. We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world.17

And so the issue is joined.

About a decade ago I gave this hypothesis the name of "Bio-Humanism," and today that term is in use in a language-community of approximately one. With much more success, E. O. Wilson gave the theory the name "Biophilia," which he used as the title of his 1984 book. The debate that has raged over the issue is a fascinating story in itself, but one which I must be bypass.18  Suffice to say that there seems to be little progress toward resolution, eighteen years after Krieger threw down his plastic gauntlet, and Iltis led the counter-charge in behalf of our genes, and their allegedly favored habitats. Wilson, a strong advocate of the theory, admits that "the subject has not been studied enough in the scientific manner ... to let us be certain about it one way or the other,"19  and Paul Ehrlich adds that such a demonstration "would be a task beyond the scope of today's biology."20

If, in fact, our genes beckon us home to our natural origins, throngs of noteworthy individuals seem able to ignore these siren songs, not only with little apparent harm, but even with some enthusiasm. The story is told that James Watt, then the Secretary of the Interior and thus the overseer of the National Parks, pleaded after three days of a two-week trip through the Grand Canyon, to be rescued from that dreadful wilderness. A NPS helicopter was dispatched to pull him out. Then there is the case of that paradigmatic naturaphobe, Woody Allen. As his companion, Mia Farrow, observes:

Woody has no tolerance for the country... Within half an hour after arriving he's walked around the lake and is ready to go home [to New York City]. He gets very bored... He's been seen in a beekeeper's hat at my place when it's gnats time. He'll put it on and seriously stroll by the lake in it. Of course, he never goes in the lake, he wouldn't touch the lake. 'There are live things in there,' he says.21

Notwithstanding such puzzling counterexamples, I will assume that there is at least something to the biophilia hypothesis -- that, to use Paul Shepard's vivid image, the destruction of nature is an "amputation of man."22 How much we can live in a totally artificial environment, detached from the environment that selected our genes and shaped our genome, without going bonkers, remains to be determined. I will only suggest that amongst those genes that hard-wire our nervous system, are a few that dispose us toward having positive "natural sentiments" toward undisturbed nature, and conversely, to suffer when deprived of our primeval landscapes. From this "biophilic" nervous system has issued the great works of art, literature and science that celebrate nature. The Pastoral Symphony, La Mer, "The Starry Night," Walden, A Sand County Almanac, Desert Solitaire, are all voices of nature speaking back to us and through us.

So we are back to the "natural sentiments" -- this time of wonder, delight, serenity, and throughout of affirmation. But these sentiments are not directed to persons, nor do they reflect upon our worth as persons, though they may indicate our state of neurological health. In short, biophilia may provide us with the sort of non-moral psychological equipment that we are looking for. If so, then what follows?

First of all, it would seem to follow that being in tune with nature is a sign of health. And this offers a hard objective reference into the contentious arena of ethical debate.

Granted, the analysis of the concept of health is open to considerable debate among medical ethicists. However, there is little debate among doctors and their patients. To paraphrase Justice Powell, we may not know how to define "health," but we all know what it is when we have it -- and even more acutely, when we don't. Moreover, the further we get "down" Maslow's pyramid from "social health" to "mental health" to "emotional health" and then to "physiological health," the less controversial is the concept of "health." To be "unhealthy" is to be "diseased," which means to suffer pain (more than normally), to lack vitality, to have a diminished life expectancy (due to physiological conditions) -- all other factors equal, to be less happy. If someone were to say that by this analysis, a drug addict or an alcoholic is more "healthy" because euphoric, then one need only add the qualifier, "in the long-term" to dismiss that sophistry.

Thus the clear implication of biophilia is this: an "artificial world" is a world in which one is less "healthy" than a world with nature abundant, conspicuous, and itself "healthy." Thus the destruction of nature deprives us of our "health." Perhaps we can live without it -- but we cannot live as well. It follows that if the existence of natural environments and landscapes is, like an essential "nutrient" in our diet, necessary for our health, then we might have within our reach a naturalistic theory of sentiments, and thence of evaluation. But not yet of moral evaluation. However, this step is not far behind. To return to our medical analogy: while "health" is a non-moral value, it is a basis for evaluating moral virtue and wickedness -- virtue in the endeavor to maintain and restore the health of others for their sake, and wickedness in the careless disregard of the health of others. Thus, if the preservation of nature is essential for the health of human individuals, societies and posterity, then "environmentalists," as they strive to protect and restore nature, are engaged in a moral enterprise.

Upon the foundation of these non-moral natural sentiments -- call it "psycho-eco-health" -- some familiar moral issues arise. For example, wilderness and natural environments are, as we well know, becoming ever scarcer. This raises moral questions of distributive justice, not unlike those questions raised with regard to scarce economic resources.

Another moral issue concerns the social institutions best suited to optimize "psycho-eco-health." Herein, the humean moral sentiments such as benevolence and sympathy can be enlisted to preserve nature, the font of non-moral "biophilic" sentiment, as we address the question, "how shall we, as a human community, regard and treat the natural environment?" It will not do for each of us, in response to our private biophilic sentiments, to go at it alone. This will only introduce the well known "tragedy of the commons." For without a robust social contract regarding our treatment of the environment -- if, that is, we attempt to protect nature through the uncoordinated and individual volitions of "six billion points of light," then clearly the natural environment has had it. Accordingly, if nature is to be protected and preserved, it must be done through a social compact to protect it ("mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon," as Garrett Hardin puts it), at the cost of foregoing many human freedoms and benefits.

And so, by empathetically recognizing in others the biophilic "need for nature" that we feel in ourselves, we may be moved, through humean benevolence, to preserve nature for all, and for posterity. Thus moral sentiments, which are incapable of attachment to nature (for reasons argued above), can be enlisted in behalf of nature -- given, of course, a foundation of non-moral "natural sentiment" which affirms nature.

But aren't we thus becoming anthropocentrists in spite of ourselves -- albeit "enlightened anthropocentrists?" Isn't all this an argument to preserve nature for humanity's sake, notwithstanding the acknowledgement that humanity has a stake in preserving the origins of its own genome? That criticism stands upon an implicit man-nature dichotomy which is severely undermined by the biophillic hypothesis. That hypothesis, after all, posits a "naturalness" to "human nature" that obscures the boundary. As Callicott eloquently argues in his "Quantum Theory" essay,23  the very notion of the "subject-object" dichotomy may now be outmoded. After all, Paul Shepard reminds us,"ecological thinking requires a kind of vision across boundaries."24   Thus the new physics, the ecological vision, and now biophilia all affirm the Zen maxim that "the World is my Body." "Enlightened anthropocentrism?" The more the "enlightenment," the less the anthropocentrism.

To repeat a theme that I have often urged, just as there is a "moral paradox" in our personal relations, there is also a "paradox of eco-morality." In the first case, the lover's life is enhanced to the degree that he cares less for himself and genuinely focuses his concern on the well-being of the loved-one. The "game is lost" when he starts to ask, "what's in this for me?" Similarly, only if we genuinely treat the natural environment with respect and restraint, finding and cherishing therein values we regard as intrinsic, can we flourish in that environment and deserve to do so.25   As Leopold so wisely observed, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."26   I think he might have said, just as well, that "if we treat land with love and respect, we might be less likely to see it as a commodity, and be more inclined to value it for itself." Crass anthropocentrism is little more than asking of the land, "what's in it for me?" Biophilia, suggests that there may be a fundamental genetic basis for this sentiment of love and respect for the land -- a sentiment which may be essential if we are to act on an ecological "moral paradox."27

These biophilic considerations suggest an environmental ethic that may be more Aristotelian than Humean, in that the "goodness" of being in tune with nature -- i.e., of living in a surrounding that we evolved from, and preserving the conditions of our evolution -- is a goodness interpreted as a consistency with human nature and fulfillment. Furthermore, this is an ethic which endorses the actualization of human potential, for it suggests that we are most likely to flourish in a natural environment, just as an acorn can best manifest it's potential "oakness" in a biome that is conducive to the flourishing of oak trees. Thus, we can accomplish our fullest potential in the aristotelian sense -- have the best kinds of lives -- if those lives can develop in an environment that is genetically natural to us, which is to say, an environment to which we are "attuned." This, I think, is an essential claim of biophilia that Aristotle might recognize and, apprised of the facts, even endorse.

But what if biophilia is false? What if we are, as Krieger claims, "infinitely malleable? If so, then I believe that the prospects for a robust environmental ethic will be severely diminished. And yet, even then, all is not lost. We can still choose between an artificial and a natural world (or various mixes between). Also, we can choose between learning to like plastic trees or live trees. We can be all of whatever we can be. We can, that is, design affirmative non-moral sentiments toward nature, or abolish them, and, in the short-term at least, be none the worse for either choice. I would strongly suggest the former -- to design ourselves as if we were designed by nature to affirm nature. And why? Because, if left to its own processes, a natural world is stable, self-regulating and permanent, and thus a safer place for us. Unlike a totally artificial world, a natural world need not be constantly managed, and will not destroy us by falling apart from neglect and disrepair. If nature seems fragile now and thus threatening to us, it not so due to its inherent weakness. It is fragile and threatening because of the assault of our artifice upon it.

The truth of biophilia is still at issue, and serious investigation is long overdue. In the meantime, nature is retreating at an alarming and accelerating rate -- tropical forests, species, coastal wetlands, migratory routes, the common atmosphere. Wilderness areas and species once lost, can not be reclaimed. What we have done and are doing to our planet cannot easily be undone. Thus unless and until we can be confident that there is no need for what we are casually destroying -- no need coded in our common genes and designed into our nervous system -- we'd best be very cautious toward our natural estate. Far more cautious, I submit, that we are today.



If the foregoing arguments are successful, we must reluctantly reject Professor Callicott's suggestion that a normative environmental ethic can be supported by a theory of moral sentiments, since such sentiments arise from interpersonal relations, and thus are fated to be confined to communities of persons. Nonetheless, moral sentiments can motivate, coordinate, and implement appropriate ethical behavior and policy toward the environment. This "second order" application of moral sentiment to an environmental ethic is of little use, however, without an underlying theory of environmental value and responsibility. Interestingly, Hume, Darwin, Leopold and Callicott, despite the false start noted above, may nonetheless be close to the mark. They are right to suggest (either directly or by implication) that we must ground our environmental ethic in appropriate attitudes and sentiments. But, I have argued, these must be "sentiments" of a non-moral kind. I have offered the hopeful suggestion that the "sentiments" we need to validate an environmental ethic and motivate ethical environmental policy may in fact be fundamental to our physical and neural constitution, having evolved through natural selection amidst the very natural environment that we must now preserve.   If so, then this theory of non-moral sentiments might support a normative environmental ethic. And finally, to end on a hopeful note, these fundamental natural sentiments and affections just might give us the motivational substance that we manifestly need, in the face of the enormous environmental responsibilities before us, brought on by our folly and greed.


1.     E. O. Wilson, Biophilia, Cambridge: 1984, Harvard University Press, p. 114.

2.     "Can a Theory of Moral Sentiments Support a Normative Environmental Ethic?", Pacific Division, American Philosophical Association, San Francisco, CA, 29 March, 1991. Unpublished. (p. 2).

3.     Ibid., 184.

4.     J. Baird Callicott, "The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic," In Defense of the Land Ethic, Albany: SUNY Press, 1989. p. 83.

5.     An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, New York: Bobbs-Merrill, Library of Liberal Arts, I pp 5-6.

6.     Ibid., 107.

7.     Clearly, it will not do simply to point out that "X is immoral, because it violates rule Y, which is immoral." Eventually, an account of "morality/immorality" must be given which does not repeat the definiendum in the definiens.

8.     In fact, Hume had no inclination to apply moral sentiments to abstractions and collectives, such as "the human community." In the Treatise (3.2.2.) he wrote: "In general, it may be affirmed that there is no such passion in human minds, as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities, of services, or of relation to ourself."

9.     Hume continues, "A young tree which overtops and destroys its parent stands in all the same relations with Nero when he murdered Agrippina, and if morality consisted merely in relations would, no doubt, be equally criminal." Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, loc. cit., p. 111.

10.     These bold pronouncements have the tincture of dogmatism. Yet a meticulous demonstration of them would lead us hopelessly astray from the primary theme of this essay. Fortunately, I have elsewhere defended the connection between moral agency, language, and community and am willing to allow these other works to stand in support of this paragraph. See, in particular, my "Posthumous Interest and Posthumous Respect,"  Ethics 91, No. 2 (1981): 243-64; "Nature as a Moral Resource," Environmental Ethics 4 (1984): 175-190; "Three Wrong Leads in a Search for an Environmental Ethic," Ethics and Animals 3 (September 1984): 61-74; and "Why Care About the Future?" in Ernest Partridge, ed., Responsibilities to Future Generations (Prometheus Books, 1981). (Linked titles at this website).

11.     J. Baird Callicott: "Intrinsic Value, Quantum Theory, and Environmental Ethics," In Defense of the Land Ethic, loc. cit., p. 162-3.

12.     Here I adopt and apply (as I have before), Joel Feinberg's "interest theory of rights," as defended in his influential essay, "The Rights of Animals and Unborn Generations," in Blackstone (ed), Philosophy and Environmental Crisis, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1974.

13.     J. Baird Callicott: "Hume's Is/Ought Dichotomy and the Relation of Ecology to Leopold's Land Ethic," In Defense of the Land Ethic, op. cit., p. 127.

14.     Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969, pp. 146-7.

15.     Martin Krieger, "What's Wrong With Plastic Trees?" Science, February 2, 1973., 453.

16.     Hugh Iltis, "To the Taxonomist and the Ecologist, Whose Fight is the Preservation of Nature," Bio-Science, December, 1967, 887. In numerous articles and lectures in the early seventies, Iltis was among the first, perhaps the first, to articulate and defend this theory. It is a great pity that his energy and devotion did not prompt an appropriate response among scientific researchers and environmental philosophers.

17.     E. O. Wilson, Biophilia, Cambridge: 1984, Harvard University Press, p. 101. A disclaimer: To my amazement, and some chagrin, I find myself quoting E. O. Wilson with approval. This is a considerably confined and qualified approval. While I find Wilson to be an eloquent stylist, and acknowledge his considerable contributions to the empirical study of insect societies, I regard his attempts to reduce human behavior and society to principles of "gene-pool maintenance" to be bizarre, and his forays into philosophy to be naive. Humans simply aren't bugs, and bug behavior has very little to tell us about human behavior. Wilson's unfettered application of the concept of "gene pool maintenance" (reminiscent of B. F. Skinner's application of "contingencies of reinforcement") to the far corners of human individual and cultural behavior, strikes me as an attempt to perform a concerto on a one-string piano. One is reminded of Maslow's remark: "To a carpenter, all problems can be solved with a hammer." I cite Wilson here simply for his eloquent statement of a hypothesis which I devoutly hope can be defended on non-Wilsonian grounds.

18.     For a sample, see The Biophilia Hypothesis, ed. Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O.Wilson (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993).

19.     Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia, Cambridge: 1984, Harvard University Press, p. 84.

20.     Paul R. Ehrlich, "Shared Sensibilities," Natural History, November, 1984, p. 92.

21.     Eric Lax, "Woody and Mia," The New York Times Magazine, February 24, 1991

22.     Paul Shepard, "Ecology and Man," Shepard and McKinley (eds) The Subversive Science, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969, p. 4

23.     Callicott: "Intrinsic Value, Quantum Theory, and Environmental Ethics."

24.     Shepard: "Ecology and Man," p. 4.

25.     Iltis states the full force of the paradox: "Not until man places man second, or, to be more precise, not until man accepts his dependency on nature and puts himself in place as part of it, not until then does man put man first! This is the greatest paradox of human ecology." H. H. Iltis, "Man First" Man Last" The Paradox of Human Ecology," BioScience, 20:14, July 14, 1970, p. 820.

The issue of the status of values in nature, here reduced to the confines of a sentence, is treated with more care and elaboration in my "Values in Nature," Philosophical Inquiry, 8:1-2, (Winter-Spring, 1986).

26.     Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, New York: Sierra Club/Ballantine, 1970, pp. xviii-xix.

27.     Time permits only a statement of this paradox. The elaborations and justifications lie elsewhere. My own attempts along this line include "Why Care About the Future?" in Responsibilities to Future Generations, (ed) E. Partridge, (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1981), pp. 203-219; "Environmental Ethics: Obstacles and Opportunities," in Environmental Consciousness, (ed) Robert C. Schultz and J. Donald Hughes (Washington: University Press of America, 1981), pp 325-50; and "Nature as a Moral Resource," Environmental Ethics, 6:2, Summer, 1984.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .